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Travel to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh – A City of Occupations

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, founded alongside the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, has been the capital of Cambodia since the mid15th century, after Angkor was abandoned.

Most of modern day Phnom Penh was built while under the colonial control of the French, (who occupied it in 1864 as an extension of their interests in Vietnam). In its heyday, the city was considered one of the most picturesque in Southeast Asia.

Since gaining independence from France in 1953, decades of political turmoil have constantly transformed Phnom Penh. A domineering monarchy was deposed in 1970 by the military as the country was dragged kicking and screaming into the Vietnam War.

Reign of Terror

Under the direction of Henry Kissinger, the countryside was carpet-bombed to “root out” Vietnamese communists. This insane military strategy drove the rural population into the capital, creating an overpopulated metropolis of hungry people, and paving the way for the eventual Khmer Rouge takeover under Pol Pot.

In April 1975, (two weeks before the fall of Saigon) the U.S. forces abandoned the city as the Khmer Rouge moved in. Initially welcomed, the KR soon instituted harsh policies (somewhat similar to China’s cultural revolution), including forcing almost the entire population back into the countryside to produce rice. The city was transformed into a ghost town, and the site of countless political tortures and murders. Tuol Saleng, a high school that was converted by the KR into an interrogation/torture centre has been preserved as the Museum of Genocide – a chilling reminder of a truly horrible period.

The Struggle for Peace

In 1979, fed up with overambitious border attacks by the KR, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, taking over Phnom Penh, driving the KR into hiding in the countryside and plunging the country into 16 years of civil war. A $3 billion UN peacekeeping initiative resulted in the election of current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who made a concerted attack on the Khmer Rouge through military means and dubious amnesties, effectively eliminating them.

A City on the Mend

With country now stabilized, Phnom Penh is steadily being restored to former glories as the Cambodian economy recovers. Despite ongoing high employment, the streets are lively during daylight hours, and there is an unmistakable optimism in the air.

Among its growing attractions are its laid back atmosphere, and lovely (and inexpensive) French food served in terraced restaurants along the Tonle Sap river. The National Museum and Grand Palace have also been restored and receive a growing number of international visitors.